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11 Useful Founder Traits

Deep Self-knowledge: Understanding the self is the highest form of education. Founders should understand themselves well.

The importance of self-knowledge is immense when it comes to building a company. The journey not only involves a lot of interpersonal dealings, but it also involves facing endless streams of difficulties and challenges.

Without a proper understanding of the self, first of all, we will not be able to deal with ourselves - our emotional ups and downs and deal effectively with others either.

Hence, the first skill founders should try to develop is a thorough understanding of the self - what makes you tick, what excites you, what depresses you, when you operate better, and so on. 

Not taking things personally and not taking offense at things easily: One common aspect of company building is that people will reject you often. Particularly, in the early days, rejections are often frequent and hurtful in how they are being done.

Investors will say no without explanations. Potential customers will cancel meetings and reject your product. In general, people will not take you seriously.

You can take none of these personally if you are to survive the journey. In fact, it is the truth. Everyone you deal with, in the process of building a company, has their own priorities and challenges. When they reject your idea or project, they neither reject you nor reject you forever, often rejections are one of the cases. You are being rejected for that very instance. Not forever.

The problem with taking things personally is that you will not try again later. Contrarily, if you consider any event, positive or negative, impersonally, you will be able to try it again later. 

Perseverance: Perseverance is our ability to keep going in the face of consistent failure. While perseverance is about grit and is an act of stubbornness that I will never give up but the act of perseverance is often fluid.

Entrepreneurs preserve their struggle to achieve great things. But when something does not work or they get rejected by someone, they don’t try the same thing again and again. They change strategy. They change their approach. They re-adjust. They tweak their product if that’s what's needed.

Perseverance is not passively keeping on doing the same thing. It is an active process. You keep at your goal but you continue changing your strategy if your existing strategy is not working.  

Determination: Determination is a dodged willingness to pursue a goal until it is achieved. There are a lot of similarities between determination and perseverance. The meaningful difference between the two, however, is that determination is relatively short-term and associated with individual goals, whereas perseverance is about a long-term ambition and overall journey.

Founders need to be determined because every goal and every sale you want to make is going to be difficult. As Paul Graham wrote, “when you're starting a startup that depends on deals with big companies to exist, it often feels like they're trying to ignore you out of existence.” The only path forward as Paul Graham suggests in an article on this very topic is to keep calling them until they agree to talk to you and answer whatever you have to ask them. 

Psychological flexibility: Flexibility is one of the counterintuitive aspects of being a founder. Founders are known for their stubbornness and determination and perseverance. It is a paradox that you have to be flexible all at the same time.

The main thing here is that if something is not working you have to be willing to give it up, change it, and try something else. This applies to your startup idea as well. When your idea is not working, you have to be willing to change it and work on a new idea.

Flexibility is often considered one of the most important qualities of successful founders. 

Robust not fragile: Founders need to be antifragile. Developed by Professor Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book, Antifragile: “antifragility is a property of systems that increase in capability to thrive as a result of stressors, shocks, volatility, noise, mistakes, faults, attacks, or failures.”

Startups, in many ways, are entities that come into constant challenges and shocks. In order to survive and thrive, founders need to be able to survive these constant shocks and challenges.

There are many ways one can build antifragility into a system. For founders, one approach probably is to find ways to keep costs under control. Find ways to quickly move to ramen profitability so that you can have an infinite runway. Be nimble in operation and flexible so that you could adapt and change course when required. 

Intellectual curiosity: As Paul Graham aptly puts it, great founders are “relentlessly resourceful”. This is where being intellectually curious pays off.

Being resourceful means you figure out new ways of doing things. Where everyone sees a dead end, you find out a new path.

Being intellectually curious pays off because you come to see new ideas, new things, and new approaches, which means you can come up with new solutions to seemingly improbable challenges 

A healthy disregard for approval of others: Founders often pursue ideas and initiatives that mainstream communities find absurd or impossible or not worth doing. In order to be able to move forward despite widespread naysaying, founders should hear everyone but should not listen to everyone.

The second meaning of having a healthy disregard for others' opinions is that you don’t seek the approval of others. 

Precocious: Successful founders often punch above their weight. If you think that you are too young to take on a challenge or too ill-prepared to take on an ambition, that is not going to help.

Being a founder, you will always have to approach challenges beyond your immediate capacity. Being precocious is an essential trait of any founder. 

Adult: Most of us are not adults in the true sense of the world. We never grow beyond our adolescent age.

Being an adult means taking responsibility, being able to deal with difficult situations and conversations with grace, being able to separate self from work, being able to treat hurts and slights from others with a healthy dose of disregard and compassion, and so on. 

Enthusiasm: Rarely do we put enough importance on the idea of enthusiasm and excitement. Whereas without a consistent stream of enthusiasm and excitement it is almost impossible to accomplish any difficult endeavor.

Enthusiasm has many upsides. It can take you through hard times and sleepless nights. Enthusiasm is contagious. When you are excited about something, it ripples through your team.

Links and books 

Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator has a number of excellent essays on founder traits and what distinguishes successful founders and others. 

Jessica Livingstone, co-founder of Y Combinator, has an excellent book titled Founders at Work

Robert Green has an excellent book titled The Laws of Human Nature

David Richo’s excellent book How To Be An Adult. 

David Epstain’s excellent book Range

Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life

This article was originally published in 2020, re-released on 30 Jan, 2024

Mohammad Ruhul Kader is a Dhaka-based entrepreneur and writer. He founded Future Startup, a digital publication covering the startup and technology scene in Dhaka with an ambition to transform Bangladesh through entrepreneurship and innovation. He writes about internet business, strategy, technology, and society. He is the author of Rethinking Failure. His writings have been published in almost all major national dailies in Bangladesh including DT, FE, etc. Prior to FS, he worked for a local conglomerate where he helped start a social enterprise. Ruhul is a 2022 winner of Emergent Ventures, a fellowship and grant program from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He can be reached at ruhul@futurestartup.com

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